SJ Logo
A Journal of Crime, Conflict & World Order
Social Justice Vol. 32, No. 3 (2005)

Waging War over Public Education and Youth Services:
Challenging Corporate Control of Our Schools and Communities


Dedication: The editors express their deepest solidarity with the people of the U.S. Gulf Coast devastated by a natural disaster, which the blindness and ineptitude of the Bush administration have only aggravated into a larger human disaster. Trapped in its war obsession, this administration appears to be governed by the logic (or illogic) that the marketplace will take care of all social needs, including natural catastrophes.

Introduction and Overview

Throughout the last two decades of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, a bold and relentless effort to hinder, even terminate, some of the administrative and political functions of government appears to be underway. We can see evidence everywhere we turn -- from deregulating strategic services (such as energy, communications, and banking), to attempting to end social security as we know it, to opening protected areas (such as forests and pristine zones of the Artic) for logging and oil extraction. Moreover, there exists a lax approach to, and at times outright disregard of, environmental protection regulations. Our country is rapidly moving away from the Great Society and New Deal project (by abandoning investment in the common good) into a society under the control of powerful shareholders of big corporations, or what Perkins (2004) calls a “corporatocracy.”

This paradigmatic shift has implications of unimaginable proportions for the institutions of the welfare state. It could mean the total dismantling of public education, which lies at the core of our country’s democratic ideals, and surrendering it to the whims of the marketplace, in ways similar to other key services that have undergone such changes. In this issue overview, we briefly discuss the economic aspects of this profound change. We first discuss the changes in the public education system, then the case of health care and welfare, and lastly the issue of national security. These three cases serve as the basis for our two interrelated points: (1) our country’s common good is being reduced to an insatiable thirst for quickly making huge amounts of money, with as little governmental interference as possible, for the exclusive benefit of a few; (2) the administrative and political functions of the state apparatus are being reduced to one function, security.

Public Schools

The primary emphasis in the public education system is to reflect the country’s business mood rather than to improve the learning of youth and children. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, school reform focused on the upgrading of the nation’s school system, motivated partly by a reaction to what appeared to be Japan’s industrial-technological edge and primacy in world markets. Through state and federal mandates, three approaches were launched: “back to basics,” the creation of standards, and the imposition of punitive accountability systems via norm-based, high-stakes testing. In the 1990s, this movement gained a great deal of control over the national educational discourse, so much so that by 2005 these three approaches constitute the pillars of most local, state, and federal educational policy. Current accountability systems in our country’s schools, however nuanced in a few places, are today more punitive than ever. We are, in fact, witnessing what Sleeter (2005) has characterized as “teaching for corporatocracy” and not “teaching for democracy.”

The demands of a globalized economy and the role of the state as referee converged in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, enacted with bipartisan support by the Bush administration in December 2001. Wrapped up in confusing and divisive “equity” language, NCLB provides minimal financial support to implement its provisions, but demands 100% control over states’ education budgets. The National Education Association (NEA) estimates that in fiscal year 2005, the nation’s schools received $9.8 billion less than promised; in 2006, the shortfall will be more than $12 billion. From the perspective of any given state, these staggering numbers are even more daunting. In fiscal year 2005, for instance, Illinois calculated that about 80% of the state’s school districts faced serious budgetary deficits. NCLB provisions added an extra burden to the crisis, since Illinois received $380.2 million less than it would have if NCLB had been funded at the level Congress authorized (NEA, Legislative Action Center, May 2005).

Under the banner of “accountability,” the federal government uses standardized tests to determine whether a school is in compliance with NCLB requirements. NCLB has represented a financial bonanza to the testing industry, as well as to corporations (e.g., McGraw Hill, Harcourt Corporation, and others) that provide textbooks, tutorial services, and packaged “solutions” (e.g., literacy and mathematics) catering to these tests. For instance, the Government Accounting Office (GAO, 2005) calculated that states will spend from $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion between the years 2002 and 2008 to implement the mandated tests. (See Arce et al. in this issue for details.)

Not long in coming were reactions spanning the country’s geographical, ideological, and political spectrum that questioned the wisdom of NCLB. Education is, after all, a constitutional mandate for which each state is responsible; in a move repudiating unfounded mandates, several legislatures have initiated legal action to pull out of the NCLB. Even at the expense of losing about $116 million in promised NCLB funds, Utah -- a state controlled by Republicans -- led the charge in an action to separate the state from the law, and at the time of this writing eight other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia), as well as several individual districts in Texas, New Jersey, California, and Illinois, had either filed their own lawsuits or were in the process of doing so.

The NCLB is a sophisticated, far-reaching trap that goes well beyond Senator Dole’s proposed closing of the Department of Education during his presidential campaign, and beyond the wildest dreams of the voucher movement, or, for that matter, home schooling, charter schools, or any other attempt in history to privatize public education. Without financial support, school systems across the country cannot carry out the provisions the NCLB requires by law -- that is, closing the achievement gaps -- thus publicly exposing schools to the wrath of an accountability system that pits schools against their own communities. By castigating a school even in cases in which, regardless of numerical significance, only one subgroup does not perform as required by the NCLB, this accountability system fuels the public’s distrust and ridicule of public schools. Worse yet, the lack of funds and the punitive means of accountability clearly force schools throughout the nation to buy corporate services tailored to serve accountability systems imposed by the NCLB (Sleeter, 2005; Arce et al. and Mahiri, in this issue).

Health Care and Welfare

The assault on our country’s public education is part of a broader pattern experienced by many social institutions serving youth and children. There has been an ongoing declining trend in health care coverage in the world’s wealthiest country, with the U.S. Census Bureau estimating in August 2003 that there were about 45 million uninsured Americans (about 15.6% of the country’s population). Most affected by a privatized health care system are children. According to the Children’s Defense Fund (2004), one out of every eight children lacks insurance coverage for health care. At a time when wealth is concentrated within a shrinking one percent of the population, and the impoverishment of the majority has soared to a historical high, the link between health care and education is dramatic. Indeed, the Children’s Defense Fund report states that only one of every seven eligible children receives federal child care and hot meal assistance through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, creating enormous challenges for schools to engage children with empty stomachs.

Compounding these problems is the welfare reform launched by the Clinton administration in 1996, which attempted to eliminate the cycle of dependency of poor families on the government. It was, indeed, a noble idea. President George W. Bush (The White House, 2003) announced that about 56% of families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) had been moved off the rosters and into the labor market. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (2005), this translates into 4.7 million individuals since the federal government enacted the welfare reform law. Yet, the limited subsidies available to the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) have doomed countless families to the dependency generated by the old welfare system, or, in many cases, to a life in the streets. A conservative estimate of this dependency shows that five out of every 20 families have gone back to TANF (Zedlewski and Alderson, 2001), while the profits of companies in charge of aiding the transition of these families to work have been enormous.

Growing numbers of researchers have questioned whether the promises of privatization of social services related to welfare reform have been fulfilled. From Lockheed Martin Marietta, Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems, down to Policy Service Inc., Curtis and Associates, and Maximus, Inc., the private sector has portrayed itself as more capable and efficient organizations for preparing, transitioning, and sustaining welfare recipients in the labor market. Bill Berkowitz (2001), a senior research fellow at the Applied Research Center, argues that what has truly worked is the profit-making machinery of these companies. His study shows how these, and other businesses, failed to transition welfare families into the work environment. Yet, in 2001 alone, $16 billion went from the government into the hands of these corporations.


Just as No Child Left Behind, in defunding school districts, has brought enormous profits to corporations that provide services related to the law, health care services and “welfare reform” have provided a multibillion-dollar windfall for private industry. Corporations like Lockheed Martin (a military equipment producer) have partially morphed from their traditional areas into social services. Despite the size of these businesses, the lion’s share of profits has gone to the security industry, particularly after September 11.

At the time of this writing, the cost of the Iraq War alone hovers around $178 billion (with further thousands of dollars added per nanosecond, as calculated by the National Priorities Project); the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost between three and five billion dollars each month. For fiscal year 2006, total military-related outlays will be around $840 billion -- or, approximately one-third of the total federal budget, according to Robert Higgs (2005). This figure will increase considerably when the Bush administration requests supplemental appropriations from Congress, as it has done since the war started in 2003.

Where does all this money go? It is difficult to tell exactly. The second-most important foreign detachment in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to consist of over 20,000 contractors, and more than 150 corporations (Zaheed, 2005; Guttman, 2004; Politi, 2004). These contractors handle most of the military logistics (e.g., transport of weapons, ammunition, and food for the troops) and are in charge of labor functions of strategic value. Examples are the reconstruction and security of the oil industry’s infrastructure, roads, electricity, and airports; key services, such as the security of government buildings; and the recruitment and training of some of the local police and military forces. In the recent past, the military performed all of these duties. San Francisco Chronicle journalist, David Lazarus, concludes: “we are, it turns out, outsourcing the war” (January 21, 2004: B1).

These contractors, who exceed the number of British troops in this arena, are employees of corporations such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Bechtel Group, Northrop Grumman, DynCorp, and Custer Battles. According to conservative estimates, these corporations garnered one-third of the $87 billion spent in 2004 alone. Beyond these costs, U.S. taxpayers fund the military-industrial complex to produce and maintain weaponry, ammunition, and war-related services, as well as exorbitant budget outlays for domestic security. The Department of Homeland Security’s projected budget for 2006 accelerated to $29.3 billion, and the Department of Justice will spend $4.7 billion on the massive federal prison system (Washington Post, 2005), which holds over two million inmates -- 63% of whom are Latinos and Blacks. Other security expenses add to the total, such as for electronic and satellite surveillance and law enforcement.

Experts (e.g., Homeland Security Research Corporation, 2005) consider the homeland security-related industry to be the economy’s fastest-growing sector, rising from $28 billion in 2003 to a projected $170 billion in 2015. Controlling the most significant market share are omnipresent names such as Boeing Corporation, the Carlyle Group, Bechtel Group, Halliburton, and newcomers like Veritas Capital Management, TCG Financial Partners, and GlobeSecNine. Other groups, organized by former security and high-ranking military officers, almost without exception collaborate closely with the banking industry. Often serving on the boards of security corporations are ex-government officials and retired high-ranking military officers.

With the federal government curtailing or ceasing its performance of many critically important administrative functions and reassigning them to private, for-profit corporations, the near future for what remains of the public education system could well be that it, too, will be auctioned off to the private sector, as was the case with welfare/health care and security services. Thus, corporations would manage the social and economic functions the state has traditionally handled. Justified by neoliberal ideologues in terms of the self-regulation of the economic life of our society via the laws of supply and demand, what is actually taking place is the steady death of the New Deal and Great Society project, and the emergence of a corporatocracy.

We understand corporatocracy as a political regime controlled by and in the service of a legal fiction, the corporation, whose main officers and throngs of lobbyists exert tremendous influence on and, in some instances, determine the day-to-day running of government. Their meddling in governmental matters profoundly affects U.S. domestic policy and its international affairs. John Perkins (2004) shows that international aid (i.e., development projects funded by financial institutions such as the World Bank) has as its ultimate purpose both the investment of money at exorbitant rates of interest and the subordination of the economic future of targeted countries to the long-term business interests of these corporations. Moreover, the bottom line of a corporatocracy remains the generation of profits for the owner class, as it has been since the inception of capitalism as the main mode of production. In the 21st century, this truism has a post-modern twist: the bottom line is to enrich a new type of aristocratic class made up of a few billionaire shareholders, who think of themselves and behave as the new barons of global capital.

U.S. civil society is not passively observing the demise of a fundamental part of the national ethos -- its social service institutions. Just as school districts and states responded to NCLB, local governments and a galvanized grass-roots movement have embraced the struggle to preserve New Deal institutions. Municipal governments country-wide (e.g., the movement initiated by Seattle’s city government) have adopted the provisions of the Kyoto Accords to diminish the production of warming gasses by cities, in spite of the Bush administration’s hostility to the accord. Repudiating the Bush administration’s opposition to stem cell research, California voters approved a state-sponsored billion-dollar research initiative that is now housed in San Francisco.

Reports by John Nichols (2005) and Joel Rogers (2005) identify cities throughout the United States with programs that defy the dominant corporate logic. These authors describe an “urban archipelago” made up of cities throughout the U.S. that are striving to become progressive isles in “a sea of conservatism” (p. 13); such cities are actively protecting the environment, labor rights, public schools, and are even supporting causes that go beyond their geographic jurisdiction (such as opposition to the war).

The editors of this issue of Social Justice consider these actions to be tantamount to waging a war over public education and services for our communities, youth, and children. Contributors to this issue look at how these challenges affect teachers, students, and members of entire communities and how these, in turn, respond, resist, and, in some instances, create innovative alternatives.

The first three articles address particular issues confronting youth from urban communities and show how these youth can exercise personal and collective agency to take control of their own lives, despite drastic cutbacks. In his powerful lead piece, “The End of the Line: California Gangs and the Promise of Street Peace,” award-winning writer and former gang member, Luis Rodriguez, documents why the “Golden State” has more than half the total number of gang members in the entire U.S. He traces the racial and class conflict that underlies California history and resonates in the present. Above all, Rodriguez shows how current policies cut funds for social services and instead pour money into prisons and the security industry, thereby exacerbating these tensions and escalating the gang problem. As he notes, “the government is going to war against street gangs, particularly those from California. The problem with this is that you cannot stop gang warfare with more warfare.” Rodriguez calls instead for creative, widespread solutions that respect the dignity of youth and honor their talents, as exemplified in his own Tía Chucha’s Café and Centro Cultural in Los Angeles. Community-based organizations, like this one, which unite people around the media and visual and expressive arts, can lay the groundwork for turning things around in California and throughout the nation.

Shawn Ginwright, Julio Cammarota, and Pedro Noguera show how youth resist and transform coercive policies and detrimental conditions in their communities as effective strategies to change debilitating public policies. The authors identify critical aspects of youth-driven initiatives, including community social capital, youth civil rights and civic participation, and collective agency. They present a model social justice youth policy that allows practitioners and researchers to identify the resources young people need to effect changes in their communities. By identifying strategies that could enhance support for marginalized youth to take action for justice, this article confronts the lack of a comprehensive theory and attendant successful urban policy.

In “Little Sisters: An Exploration of Agency, Cultural Borderlands, and Institutional Constraints in the Lives of Two Teenage Girls,” Rosemary C. Henze examines the development of agency in an intercultural, interracial, and economically diverse setting found at the borders of three female lives, including that of the author herself. A mentor of two teenage girls through the Big Brothers and Big Sisters Program, the author begins by asking why these two young women experience opposite trends in their school success given equally oppressive histories and multiple risk factors. She suggests that a possible explanation lies in the vast difference in opportunities for agency, and proposes that agency be promoted together with a focus on helping youth to navigate complex cultural borderlands. Also considered are possible implications for schools.

The next two articles focus on the impact of federal and state mandates from No Child Left Behind legislation on urban public schools, illustrating how they squeeze the lifeblood out of creative teaching and learning while reaping huge profits for a few private corporations. In “The No Child Left Behind Act: Who Wins? Who Loses?” authors Josephine Arce, Debra Luna, Ali Borjian, and Marguerite Conrad document case-by-case how private corporations supported by the Bush administration benefit from NCLB. They argue that these corporations are allied in a neoconservative coalition seeking to dismantle public education. At the same time, school districts with large populations of English learners (and other children from low-income communities) are held hostage to the “accountability” measures of NCLB, being forced to meet impossible demands with minimal resources under the threat of losing even more of their scarce resources.

Similarly, in “From 3 R’s to 3 C’s: Corporate Curriculum and Culture in Public Schools,” Jabari Mahiri shows with a vivid case study of a Northern California high school how state mandates are controlling the curriculum. In this example, the local school board forced the adoption of Prentice Hall literature anthologies for the district’s secondary English curriculum. This move led to soaring profits for Prentice Hall and its investors, while muzzling the voices of teachers and students who wanted more choice in their reading and language arts materials. In response, teachers, parents, students, and community members organized and formed a group called the Alliance for Meaningful Education. Among other actions, the Alliance staged “read-outs,” in which students engaged in the subversive activity of reading whole books; others involved eloquent speak-outs at school board meetings. As Mahiri concludes, “struggles to resist the imposition of corporate curriculum and culture are about survival, but not just of public schools…. Struggles like this will ultimately determine whether profiting from education supports democracy or corporatocracy.”

Two subsequent articles critically examine dramatic changes and increased requirements in teacher preparation, demonstrating how qualified candidates are pushed out, especially bilingual/bicultural people of color who could best serve marginalized students. Why has the teaching population remained disproportionately white in the face of rising student diversity? In “The Whitening of the American Teaching Force: A Problem of Recruitment or a Problem of Racism?” Kitty Kelly Epstein refutes the popular notion that college graduates of color are not attracted to the profession of teaching. Instead, she documents how the current teacher credentialing process is intentionally designed to push out prospective teachers of color and to ignore qualities truly needed for becoming an effective teacher. Because she identifies the root of the problem in institutional racism, Epstein calls for organized, collective struggle to challenge the current teacher selection process and to build successful alternatives.

Similarly, in “DEbilingualization of California’s Prospective Bilingual Teachers, Theresa Montaño, Sharon H. Ulanoff, Rosalinda Quintanar-Sarellana, and Lynne Aoki show that students who speak a language other than English in the home -- whose numbers are growing dramatically -- are finding an increasingly unprepared teaching force in schools. The authors explore how recent credentialing reforms in California affect teacher preparation programs and the training of bilingual teachers. Increased testing, standardization, and the “watering down” of the curriculum in these programs, they argue, have reduced the number of qualified bilingual teachers. Ultimately, this leads to the “debilingualization and subtractive schooling” of English Language Learners. These changes are occurring within a larger sociopolitical climate that promotes assimilation and monolingualism (English-only) over genuine education, which includes multiple languages, cultures, and equity.

Two book reviews highlight invaluable resources for teachers and teacher educators. First is Hernán Vera’s review of Melanie Bush’s groundbreaking book, Breaking the Code of Good Intentions: Everyday Forms of Whiteness, which can serve as a powerful pedagogical tool in teacher education courses. It is rare to find research that clearly documents white working-class people’s daily experiences and attitudes, and then contextualizes them within the current neoconservative political-economic climate. Through extensive interviews with white students at Brooklyn College and an unusually sophisticated analysis, Bush succeeds at producing a work that is unique in the field of Whiteness Studies. As Vera notes, Melanie Bush raises provocative questions, such as “Do we have collective responsibility for the well-being of all members of society or solely individual responsibility for the well-being of our own quality of life?” Clearly, as the articles in this issue reveal, the choices we all make in answering this question will shape the future of our world.

Next is Renee Shank’s review of Eric Gutstein and Bob Peterson’s Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers (2005). Through vivid articles and classroom lessons, the anthology shows how teachers can incorporate “real-life” social and political issues into the math curriculum in ways that offer students the chance to comprehend both national and global injustice.  By using real world scenarios such as the disparity in per-pupil funding in an inner-city versus a suburban school, students can recognize the power of math as an analytical tool while also acquiring the necessary skills to effect change. As a California public school teacher, Shank urges educators to use this book as a valuable resource, especially at a time when state-mandated tests and curriculum are defining the parameters of teaching and learning.

In “To See or Not to See the Crisis in the Academy: A Call for Action,” Ken Kyle shows how the attack on public education is also taking place in institutions of higher learning. Historically in the U.S., the academy has often served as a potential site for expanding democracy. Yet the current trend of running a university as a business under pressure of “downsizing” has resulted in rising tuition costs and reduced government support for students, restricting access to higher education for many families. Kyle urges faculty members to wake up to the impact of these threats and to take collective action: “Given our privileged position, if any in society are capable of responding in an effective manner, it is we who make up the university.”

The last two articles address the rising militarization of schooling and the growing organized resistance to it. In “Militarizing Youth in Public Education: Observations from a Military-Style Charter School,” Adalberto Aguirre, Jr., and Brooke Johnson report on their study of a military charter school in an under-served community of color, revealing how military symbols and discourse are being manipulated to disempower poor urban communities. Since the capacity of the state to engage in armed conflict rests largely on its ability to recruit, the U.S. military is increasingly turning to high-school youth as potential new soldiers. Aguirre and Johnson look at the connection between the militarization of youth and neoliberal education reform, including the drive toward the privatization of public schools, the establishment of a system of increased standards, and the enforcement of high-stakes standardized testing.

This issue concludes with Stuart Tannock’s insightful critique of the movement to fight military recruitment at school sites, “Is ‘Opting Out’ Really an Answer? Schools, Militarism, and the Counter-Recruitment Movement in Post-September 11 United States at War.” Given heightened military presence and ideology in schools, Tannock argues that this movement has tremendous potential to publicize, and mobilize around, the links between schooling, militarism, and U.S. imperialism. Yet this potential is not being realized due to the movement’s lack of a deeper analysis of global capitalism, along with its narrow focus on stopping recruitment and removing the military from “our backyard.” Tannock cautions activists to look beyond U.S. domestic interests: “Yet, what does the ‘public’ in ‘public education’ mean? Most commonly, it has been framed at the level of the nation-state, in a way that is exclusive of those who are not citizens of our country. How might it be possible to create an education ‘for the public good’ that is not just about serving the interests of U.S. citizens, but rather the internationalist and solidaristic interests of all peoples everywhere?” This final question is one that we hope all readers of this special issue will take to heart and tackle very seriously.

Acknowledgement: The co-editors of this issue, Gilberto Arriaza, Susan Roberta Katz, and Emma Fuentes, wish to thank Laura J. Arriaza-Roht for her valuable editorial comments on this introduction.


Berkowitz, Bill

2001    “Prospecting Among the Poor: Welfare Privatization.” Oakland, CA: ARC Publications. At

Bureau of Justice Statistics

2005    Downloaded June 20, 2005, from

Center for Public Integrity

2005    June 15 report. Downloaded June 25, 2005, from

Children’s Defense Fund

2004    “Key Facts About American Children.” August report downloaded June 30, 2005, from

Department of Health and Human Services

2005    “Overview of AFDC and TANF.” At

Government Accounting Office (GAO)

2005    Downloaded June 25, 2005, from

Guttman, D.

2004    “The Shadow Pentagon: Private Contractors Play a Huge Role in Basic Government Work -- Mostly Out of Public View.” Downloaded, June 30, 2005, from

Higgs, R.

2005    “Bush’s New Defense Budget.” March 5. Downloaded on June 20, 2005, from

Homeland Security Research Corporation

2005    “Homeland Security and Homeland Defense: Global Market Outlook.” At

Lazarus, David

2004    “Taking the War Private.” San Francisco Chronicle (January 21): B1.

National Education Association (NEA), Legislative Action Center

2005    Downloaded June 25, 2005, from

National Priorities Project

2005    Downloaded June 20, 2005, from

Nichols, John

2005    “Progressive Cities in a Conservative Sea.” The Nation (June 20): 13 -16.

Perkins, John

2004    Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications.

Politi, D.

2004    “Winning Contractors -- An Update.” Downloaded June 30, 2005, from

Rogers, R.

2005    “Cities: The Vital Core.” The Nation (June 20): 20 -24.

Sleeter, Christine

2005    “Teaching for Democracy in an Age of Accountability.” Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual conference, Montreal, Canada, April.

Washington Post

2005    “2006 Budget Proposal: Agency Breakdown.” Downloaded June 30, 2005, from

The White House

2003    “Welfare Reform.” Press release, January 14. Downloaded June 22, 2005, from

Zaheed, M.

2005    “Memorial Day.” Downloaded June 30, 2005, from

Zedlewski, S. and D. Alderson

2001    Before and After Reform: How Have Families on Welfare Changed? Urban Institute (April 5).

Citation: Editors. (2003). "Waging War over Public Education and Youth Services: Challenging Corporate Control of Our Schools and CommunitiesVol. 32, No. 3: 1-11. Copyright © 2005 Social Justice, ISSN 1043-1578. Social Justice, P.O. Box 40601, San Francisco, CA 94140.